Meeting Gorbachev review – Werner Herzog pulls his punches | Documentary films

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Werner Herzog shares a co-directing credit with British documentarist André Singer here, but really this is Herzog’s show, a self-consciously grand head-to-head between the great director and the great historical figure. Despite the film’s obvious interest, it is a bit conceited and stately, a little like Wim Wenders’ movie about Pope Francis, though without the sycophancy. Or almost. This is Herzog’s encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev, the former USSR president and the last great figure from the end of the cold war, now that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are no longer with us.

The last time Gorbachev appeared on screen was in the recent terrifying TV drama Chernobyl, played by the Swedish actor David Dencik, as an enigmatic, enclosed figure, and perhaps many of the audience assumed he was no longer alive – but alive he very much is at the age of 88, a little debilitated by diabetes but perfectly lucid and alert, responding to Herzog’s questions in English through a translation in his earpiece. It is also bracing to see some of the other veterans interviewed here, also vigorously still alive: George Schultz and James Baker from Reagan’s cabinet and the great Polish leader Lech Wałęsa.

Gorbachev takes us through his boyhood and brilliant youth as a high-flier in the Communist party, and then as the smart operator, keeping his counsel and biding his time as the sclerotic politburo oldsters fell away: Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko. Gorbachev became the bold and muscular new force, learning from superior communist economies such as Hungary, making friends with western Europe, responding gratefully to Thatcher’s flattering assessment of him as someone she could “do business with” and finally instituting a historical working relationship with Reagan.

Herzog’s questioning is sometimes embarrassingly misjudged and supercilious, especially when he begins by virtually apologising for being a German, because he assumed that Gorbachev’s first childhood memories of Germans were of people who wanted to kill him. No, says Gorbachev crisply – kindly Germans were his grandfather’s neighbours. Gorbachev’s manner is measured and statesmanlike, a manner polished over years and decades as he recounts his own heroic role in bringing about change. (Maybe only Nelson Mandela was more revered in the liberal west.) But he becomes more opaque as we come to the fact that the USSR did not stay united as a liberalised entity but fractured into its original nation states – and that includes Russia.

So will Gorbachev be asked about Russia now, the Russia he indirectly and unwittingly created and about the elephant in the room – Vladimir Putin? No. The nearest he comes to it is a brief and blank mention of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, the man who forestalled the 1991 coup but became the reckless face of nationalism.

The film becomes very moving when Gorbachev talks about his late wife, Raisa, and the footage of him sobbing at her funeral is a stunning contrast to the dead-eyed insincere obsequies to Brezhnev et al.

• Meeting Gorbachev is released in the UK on 8 November.

Source: The Guardian
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